Fed Releases Discount-Window Lending Records Under Court Order

By Craig Torres—Bloomberg News

The Federal Reserve released thousands of pages of secret loan documents under court order, almost three years after Bloomberg LP first requested details of the central bank’s unprecedented support to banks during the financial crisis.

The records reveal for the first time the names of financial institutions that borrowed directly from the central bank through the so-called discount window. The Fed provided the documents after the U.S. Supreme Court this month rejected a banking industry group’s attempt to shield them from public view.

“This is an enormous breakthrough in the public interest,” said Walker Todd, a former Cleveland Fed attorney who has written research on the Fed lending facility. “They have long wanted to keep the discount window confidential. They have always felt strongly about this. They don’t want to tell the public who they are lending to.”

The central bank has never revealed identities of borrowers since the discount window began lending in 1914. The Dodd-Frank law exempted the facility last year when it required the Fed to release details of emergency programs that extended $3.3 trillion to financial institutions to stem the credit crisis. While Congress mandated disclosure of discount-window loans made after July 21, 2010 with a two-year delay, the records released today represent the only public source of details on discount- window lending during the crisis.

Protecting Its Reputation

“It is in the interest of a central bank to put a premium on protecting its reputation, and, in the modern world, that means it should do everything to be as transparent as possible,” said Marvin Goodfriend, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who has been researching central bank disclosure since the 1980s.

“I see no reason why a central bank should not be willing to release with a lag most of what it is doing,” said Goodfriend, who is a former policy adviser at the Richmond Fed.

The discount window was the first tool Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke reached for when panic over subprime mortgage defaults caused banks to tighten lending in money markets in 2007. The Fed cut the discount rate it charged banks for direct loans to 5.75 percent on Aug. 17, 2007, and it continued to reduce the rate to 0.5 percent by the end of 2008. The rate stands at 0.75 percent today.

Lending through the discount window soared to a peak of $111 billion on Oct. 29, 2008, as credit markets nearly froze in the wake of the bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. While the loans provided banks with backstop cash, the public has never known which banks borrowed or why. Fed officials say all the loans made through the program during the crisis have been repaid with interest.

Appeal Rejected

The Fed was forced to make the disclosures after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Clearing House Association LLC, a group of the nation’s largest commercial banks.

The justices left intact lower court orders that said the Fed must reveal documents requested by Bloomberg related to borrowers in April and May 2008, along with loan amounts. The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked for the records under the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens access to government papers. News Corp.’s Fox News Network LLC filed FOIA requests for similar information on loans made from August 2007 to March 2010.

Former Fed officials, lawyers representing the central bank, and even some Fed watchers have expressed concern that revealing the names of discount-window borrowers could keep banks away from the facility in the future.

“I am concerned that in the next crisis it will be more difficult for the Federal Reserve to play the traditional role of lender of last resort,” said Donald Kohn, former Fed vice chairman and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Having these names made public, or the threat of having them made public, could well impair the efficacy of a key central bank function in a crisis — to provide liquidity to avoid fire sales of assets — because banks will be reluctant to borrow.”

“I think it will make it harder for people to use the discount window in the future,” Jamie Dimon, chairman and chief executive of New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), the second- biggest U.S. bank by assets, told reporters yesterday after a speech in Washington. “We never intend to use the discount window.”

With little more than a phone call to one of 12 Federal Reserve banks, a bank anywhere in the country can ask for cash from the discount window. Banks typically have already given the Fed a list of unencumbered collateral that they use to pledge against the loans. The Fed gives the banks less than 100 cents on each dollar of collateral to protect itself from credit risk.

Discount-window lending was not the largest source of the Fed’s backstop aid during the crisis. Bernanke also devised programs to loan to U.S. government bond dealers, and to support the short-term debt financing of U.S. corporations.

Full story below and available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-31/federal-reserve-releases-discount-window-loan-records-under-court-order.html

*Bloomberg News will have continuing coverage available at www.bloomberg.com

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